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Reviewed by:
  • Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers
  • Karen Olsen Bruhns
Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers. By Lisa J. Lucero (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2006) 253 pp. $45.00

The thesis of this book is that those who were later to become Maya rulers staked their claims by performing water rituals that benefited the community and eventually led to their acceptance as a ruling elite. The end of Classic Maya polities was in the currently popular versions, which may (or may not) have caused the collapse of economies and the commoners' loss of faith in the ritual importance of their rulers.

Lucero supports her thesis with six pages of definitions and seventeen pages of tables detailing various offerings and burials at Saturday Creek, Belize; Altar de Sacrificios; and Tikal. She focuses upon the Maya lowlands and never mentions the highlands, except in ethnographic analogies taken from these still existent (although much-changed) Maya communities. Copán is included, but no other Honduran Maya sites, nor any of the coastal Guatemalan or Salvadoran sites known to be part of the great Maya realm. This narrowness of scope is indicative of a greater problem with the book. Tropical ecosystems are [End Page 320] not all the same. The omission of this variation is not solely Lucero's problem; Mayaists have been homogenizing the tropics for decades. You would think that in the current resurgence of environmental determinism, they would look to their atlases.

Lucero's points about the probable origins of rulership in ritual are interesting although, as she herself says, ritual is not capable of precise definition, and, in fact, the ideology behind the remains of many rituals—conventionally named "grave goods," "house dedication deposit," "termination offering," etc.—is unknown. Many rituals, however, leave no remains, and others leave no clue to the behaviors and beliefs associated with them. Lucero emphasizes that many rituals were the same among elites and commoners, although the rich had more goods, and more expensive or exotic goods, to offer (and thus remove from circulation). This important observation makes clear that although new rituals associated mainly with rulers and performed publicly may have been added, ruler and ruled shared basic ideas.

Lucero's ideas about ritual, shared ritual, new ritual, and the dangers of changing ritual too radically are supported by a wealth of historical and ethnographical material from other places. She may well be correct that the first arrivals, in the Early Preclassic period, established rights to land and parlayed them, along with ritual performance, into rulership. Proving it might be difficult, but the mere suggestion places the Maya firmly into the context of the rise of early states elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, until conclusive evidence of a long-term model that affected the entire, highly variable, region of Maya culture becomes available, the conclusions of this otherwise interesting thesis will have to lie in abeyance.

Karen Olsen Bruhns
San Francisco State University


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pp. 320-321
Launched on MUSE
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